Virtual Reality, Cave Paintings & Study Abroad

Jan 12, 2015 12:16:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA International Education's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

This month, Dr. Woolf takes a look at the ways in which we use art and media - from cave paintings to the Internet - to create representations of the world around us and what this means in the context of international education.

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The notion of virtual reality has become part of the environment in which we function, a collocation or linguistic association as familiar as fish and chips, online learning, or study abroad. That is, of course, a consequence of the huge and unprecedented impact of information technology on the way in which we live. The computer and the World Wide Web have become essential elements in our daily lives; they are, for many, the key sources for information, news, social intercourse, libraries, research, recreation and so on.

The term “virtual reality” signifies, in our context, the creation of a technologically manufactured space within which students may learn about international diversity through information, either in the public domain or specifically created for them. This has had many significant consequences for the development of new learning models: online learning, Coil, MOOCS, distance learning, blended learning and a host of hybrid forms. The World Wide Web and the technological environments we build to educate ourselves and our students are essentially mediated forms of reality: filters through which we recreate the world outside. It is obviously not that world but a device for metaphorical representation.

Photo: Lascaux painting via Wikimedia

There is nothing new in this. For centuries humanity has attempted to represent the world in another form: to crystallise, interpret, translate and disseminate experience. The Lascaux Cave paintings in France are of Palaeolithic origin and are estimated to be about 17,300 years old. They interpret a key activity of prehistoric man and enable the viewer to make an imaginative leap into an experience that is not their own. Seeing these representations of hunting is not, of course, the same thing as chasing animals with a spear. The ultimate difference between the cave paintings and the World Wide Web is the medium; the function is the same: to present images that approximate external realties.

The visual arts, as the cave painters signify, seek to represent the known world. Similarly, Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450 - 1516) or Pieter Brueghel the Elder (c.1525 – 1569) painted versions of reality in which the bucolic and the demonic coexisted: the devil (dressed up as temptation or the plague) lurked in the darker corners of village life. Hell was not a metaphor but a geographical space, concrete if unseen and, consequently, represented on canvas.

Many media have sought to recreate versions of reality. The novel, from its origins in the eighteenth century, grappled with modes of representation. One of the earliest forms used letters as the basic mode through which the reader could engage with recognisable experience – call it mind or consciousness. Reality was mediated in a form that was as common to the reader as e-mail is to us. (It actually remains a persistent device in the novel: the pioneer fiction of Samuel Richardson, Clarissa (1748), used letters to tell the story as Lionel Shriver did in his novel of 2011, We Need to Talk about Kevin).

Photo: Stacking up and defying time by Susana Fernandez

Theatre from the Classical Greek unities of time and place to the absurdist evocations of a Samuel Beckett similarly exists to hold “a mirror up to nature”, or to some form of imaginatively reconstructed notion of what nature might be. It could be argued that television and film have been closest to creating virtual reality in that they have, largely, shown real people moving in actual environments, speaking known languages. They are also, however, artefacts: selective constructs made by the lens under the control of the director.

Oscar Wilde asserted the supremacy of art over nature; William Wordsworth the supremacy of nature over art. Neither would, however, claim that art and nature are indistinguishable or interchangeable.

Mediated or virtual reality is crafted and contained within the medium of transmission be it a television, a book, a theatre, or a computer. However powerful the artefacts may be they are not analogous to the diversity and messy unpredictability of lived experience. At the heart of a necessary distinction is the question of control. The maker or creator of a virtual reality establishes the conventions of entry and transmission from “click on this icon”, to ending the novel on page 350, to creating artificial theatrical divisions called scenes and acts, to the frame containing the painting. The “consumer” manages the manner of engagement: switches off, turns over, moves on, reads again, clicks the back button, closes their eyes, leaves the theatre etc. etc. Virtual reality is controlled and predictable: a type of “art”, it offers a manufactured representation of realty.

Photo: iPad stand by Veronica Belmont

Art or “virtual reality” may be beautiful, enlightening, frightening or crass but, ultimately, we can make it go away. It is under our control and will, and challenges us to the degree to which we wish to be challenged. That is not to deny utility or significance. None of us will experience all the places, joys, tribulations that are potential in our world. Through virtual reality we have an opportunity to experience, metaphorically, a mediated version of the world’s potential. That is, of course, better than nothing and, ultimately, it may be all that some of us can afford.

The world does not behave in a predictable or anticipated fashion. Reading the guide book is not an adequate substitute for visiting the town. The question of ownership is crucial. If students only experience the world through media of transmission, they may well gain all sorts of useful insights but they will not own them for themselves. When they physically enter a new environment, they may encounter a plethora of messy contradictions, puzzling ambiguities and disturbing disassociations. At that point they own their experience: actuality is uncontrolled and unmediated, and what they ultimately learn may not be what they had expected to learn.

laptopPhoto: CAPA alumna Kerri Williams combines study abroad with the virtual world

Similar distinctions are apparent if we compare online learning to the experience of studying with a teacher and a peer group. Online learning can be an effective and economical mechanism for teaching a large group of people over a widely spread geographical space. What is missing, however, is the unpredictability, and consequent richness, of real-time interaction with teacher and fellow students. A half-formed thought may trigger another related idea. Thoughts spread and interact, creating ripples of overlapping meaning. In short, the very unpredictability of the environment becomes a catalyst for potential creativity.

In international education the (expensive) ideal is that we expose students to a new environment in which outcomes and impacts are unpredictable. In contrast, the computer is a controlled and managed environment. It is clean, antiseptic and predictable: precisely the opposite of what study abroad aspires to whereby learning is based on moving from the known to the unknown: engagement with the unexpected.

I am aware that it is easy to make such an assertion from a position of relative wealth and opportunity in the developed world. Mobility is an option for students in these privileged environments. It may not be elsewhere. Where nothing else is available online learning may be of major significance but it is a substitute for the real, not a replacement. Study abroad is an expensive privilege open only to an international elite. Whether we approve or not, higher education is a market and the sad reality is that there are huge global economic inequalities. The development of information technology creates access to information about the world, but it is delusion to imagine that, in so doing, we are offering a product of equal value to that which can be bought by the global rich.

Photo: Travel's end by Robert Couse-Baker

International education is based primarily on curriculum and mobility. In curriculum terms, our task is to broaden perception by integrating alternative perspectives. A study of the Vietnam War, for example, should consider the implied distinction in what is also called the War of Franco-American Aggression. This involves a leap of imagination and intellect. In that context, access to virtual reality may be useful, even crucial. In contrast, study abroad has, at its centre, an implicit belief in the benefit of mobility; it values a mode of learning that goes beyond reliance on traditional texts, pedagogies and locations. The boundaries of the fixed classroom are dissolved and the learning environment expanded to include the world elsewhere. The assumption is that learning is enhanced through experience that discomforts, disturbs, and challenges students to look beyond themselves and, paradoxically, back into themselves.

The web, the painting, the play and the book are profound and powerful tools through which we broaden knowledge and understanding; but, the screen, like the page, stage or canvas, is a defined and limited universe; a tool for learning not a substitute for experience. The benefits of study abroad are only fully to be realised if we move students into messy reality (with all the contradictions and ambiguities that that implies). Virtual reality is better than nothing at all, but it is not the place in which the world surprises, confuses and, ultimately, enriches insight.

Thanks Mike!

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